MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Army went from left out of the bowls to replacing Tennessee in the Liberty Bowl on Monday night, hours after the Volunteers withdrew because of COVID-19 test results.
The Black Knights, who had been committed to the Independence Bowl since October before the game was called off, will now play West Virginia in Memphis, Tennessee, on Dec. 31.
“We went from being in tears this evening to just being elated,” Army coach Jeff Monken said. “Our guys, when I announced it to them, they were thrilled and excited. It just couldn't have worked out better. Sometimes, things don't work out like you want them to, but somehow, some way, they work out a different way. It almost seems like it's just even better. We're just humbled that so many people have latched onto this and felt so strongly about our team having an opportunity.”
The Black Knights (9-2) were left without a bowl Sunday night when the Independence Bowl, scheduled for Dec. 26 in Louisiana, was called off without an available opponent.
A spot in the Liberty Bowl became available Monday when Tennessee became the first team to back out since bowl berths were announced. The Volunteers ended their season after receiving the results of Sunday’s COVID-19 testing.
“The test results revealed an increase in positive cases among student-athletes and staff and subsequent contact tracing,” Tennessee said in a statement. “The decision was made in consultation with health officials, the Southeastern Conference and the AutoZone Liberty Bowl.”
In other bowl news Monday, No. 17 Iowa said it was pausing football activities for at least five days because of an increase in positive COVID-19 cases but still hopes to play in the Music City Bowl in Nashville on Dec. 30. The Hawkeyes (6-2) are scheduled to face Missouri (5-5).
The change to its Liberty Bowl opponent was no problem for West Virginia (5-4). The game will be the first between the teams since 1961.
“Our team deserves to be in a bowl and so does the 9-2 Army squad,” West Virginia athletic director Shane Lyons said. “While we are disappointed that Tennessee couldn’t be in the game, Army needed a bowl and an opponent, and the Mountaineers are glad to solve the problem.”
West Virginia coach Neal Brown agreed, saying Monken and his staff have done a terrific job winning 43 games in five seasons.
“We started the day preparing for one opponent and will end it preparing for another, but that’s how crazy 2020 has been," Brown said.
Army is coming off wins over its service-academy rivals on back-to-back weeks. The Black Knights captured the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy on Saturday with a 10-7 victory over Air Force.
“It's a special group of young men who represent us every Saturday,” Army athletic director Mike Buddie said. “To get the opportunity was what we were hoping for. Frankly, I think we were stunned to find out the opportunity would be in a bowl like the AutoZone Liberty Bowl. It's truly the icing on the cake. It's more than we could have hoped for and we're just thrilled for the opportunity.”
The Volunteers will finish at 3-7 with losses in seven of their final eight games. They fell 34-13 to No. 5 Texas A&M on Saturday.
Third-year coach Jeremy Pruitt is among those who tested positive for COVID-19. Pruitt said he was informed earlier Monday that he had tested positive and began isolating at home.
“I am experiencing mild symptoms but doing fine,” Pruitt said. “We are obviously disappointed that we will not be able to play in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, but the health and safety of our student-athletes will always remain our top priority.”
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This story has been updated to correct Iowa's ranking to No. 17.